On June 10th, a 35-year-old woman was accosted by a strange man while she was walking the streets of Manhattan. “Who is the president of the United States?” he asked. Perhaps she didn’t hear him, or maybe she was just puzzled by the bizarre line of questioning. Either way, she didn’t respond, and he walked away. No doubt stranger things have happened in a city of more than eight million people, and she most likely shrugged off the strange encounter.
Yet it was only a quarter after 4 in the afternoon when the woman, walking along Grand Street, was once again approached by the strange individual who, this time, appeared to be cradling an object in a white, plastic bag. Seemingly out of nowhere, the man took the object, smashed her in the face, and fled. That same night, another woman was assaulted in a similar fashion, this time at Park Avenue and East 30th Street. The type of attack — being hit in the face with a blunt object — wasn’t the only commonality between the two assaults, however. Both the first and second victim were Asian.
That Friday, another Asian woman was assaulted, this time on Second Avenue and East 60th Street. A fourth attack occurred the following Monday on Mulberry Street.
It seemed as though Manhattan had a serial attacker on its hands; one who specifically targeted Asian women. The NYPD began investigating the incidents as potential bias crimes. Thanks to surveillance footage, law enforcement officials were able to ID the suspect as 25-year-old Tyrell Shaw. A career criminal, Shaw already had numerous run-ins with the law prior to his string of violent attacks on Asian women. Shaw had been arrested ten times in New York City since 2006 for crimes ranging from trespassing to burglary. He had also been involved in a handful of domestic disturbances, some involving family members, and at least one with a girlfriend.
Yesterday afternoon it was discovered that Shaw died by suicide; his body was found in the elevator shaft of a Madison Avenue building, but only after neighbors noticed the stench. While police will never be able to get a full confession from Shaw as to why he committed these attacks, it seems as though the aspiring fashion designer gave us enough clues on his blog, Mr. Talented.
In an apparent suicide note, titled “Why I decided to leave Earth”, he revealed that he harbored a deep resentment toward Asian women for having spurned his affection, which he attributed to anti-black racism. “I’ve always treated Women with the utmost respect,” he complained. “I never wanted to reach the conclusion that Asian Women would never take me serious [sic], because of the color of my skin.” Shaw claims that he “talked to nearly 1500 Asian Women” in 350 days, but “none of them took time out of their day to say hello.” It made him “furious”, and he resolved to “overcome that sense of rejection” by “assaulting the Women that carelessly reject me.”
Thus, the root of the problem becomes quite clear. Tyrell Shaw, like thousands of other men who commit violent acts against women, was driven by a frightening toxic masculinity.
Shaw described himself as “kindhearted” and a “nerd.” He bragged about how his art had been displayed in prominent shows and magazines, yet the Asian women he fixated so heavily on still didn’t find him attractive. The humiliation gnawed at him inside. He wanted to hurt the women whom he believed had wronged him. He wanted to get even, and make a game of it too:
I assumed the [Asian women] that I am attracted to use cocaine so I decided to play a game. Bash Asian Women in the Nose so that they could stop sniffing cocaine and give me a chance. At first I thought I could get away with 1 Million Noses, but at 6th victim I felt a little discouraged. I didn’t even expect to bash The Dry cleaning lady in the mouth. She went overboard with the verbal abuse. That was actually my day off from playing the Nose Game. Yeah, thats [sic] what I’ll call it “The Nose Game”. She asked for it.
His case is reminiscent of unstable, entitled men such as George Sodini and even Elliot Rodger. In 2009, Sodini, a middle-aged white man angered by romantic rejection, stormed an LA Fitness gym in Collier Township, PA, armed with an assault weapon and opened fire. When the bloodbath was over he had murdered five women and wounded twelve others. In an online diary he expressed bafflement over his inability to get a date or have sex, writing, “I dress good, am clean shaven, bathe, touch of cologne–yet 30 million women rejected me–over an 18 or 25 year period.” Like Sodini, Shaw also expressed disbelief that women, particularly Asian women, didn’t find him attractive. Like Sodini, he hyperbolically claimed that a preposterous number of women (1500 in 350 days) had rejected him. Like Sodini, he used violence to get even with the opposite sex.
In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Dr. Michael Kimmel provides some insight as to why men would behave violently towards, and even murder, the women they purport to love:
This association between violence and love is so intimate, so central for men, that it practically screams out for answers. Freud wasn’t the first to notice the association between love and anger, between sex and aggression. Perhaps it’s because loving leaves us so exposed, so vulnerable, feelings that are antithetical to our sense of ourselves as masculine. Masculinity is about impermeability, independence. Perhaps feeling vulnerable and dependent is regressive, reminding us of our earliest dependence on our mothers.
Maybe. But the defense against vulnerability and exposure, however intimate its experience and how it recalls events early in our lives, seems to be activated only when something else breaks down. If masculinity is based on impermeable defenses and the feeling of being in control, then violence may be restorative, returning the situation to the moment before that sense of vulnerability and dependency was felt and one’s sense of masculinity was so compromised.
But still, one needs an additional ingredient: the feeling of right, or entitlement. One must feel entitled to use violence as a means of restoring what was experienced as threatened, that part of the self that is suddenly made vulnerable. If you don’t feel entitled to use violence, then all the vulnerability in the world won’t lead you to hit somebody.
According to Kimmel, this “sense of entitlement” is the “key to understanding men’s violence against women.” Men don’t hit women when things are going smoothly, but rather “when it breaks down.” Thus, men choose to be violent with women for any number of reasons — perhaps dinner isn’t on time, or she isn’t in the mood to have sex, or she wants to do something by herself. “He has a right; he’s entitled. When that entitlement is compromised, he feels humiliated, aggrieved.”
Shaw was, without a doubt, entitled and aggrieved. In a post dated June 7th, Shaw wrote, “I’ve been rejected by Women my entire life. I never understood why, but whenever I stopped to woo- I always ended up getting the same excuse every single time. Sorry I have a Boyfriend or Sorry I’m in a rush. Some Women even ignored me completely. It got really bad.” He openly admitted to stalking Asian women on the street, following them “just to see why they’re lives are ten times more important than a Black Mans in America.” One day he decided to record all the instances in which he saw “Asian women locking hands with Caucasian men.” An accomplished street harasser, he set about to “compliment 100 women” in a single day and record the results.
Moreover, violence was certainly restorative for Shaw. His stated motive for assaulting Asian women was to “overcome that sense of rejection.” He had come to the realization that he “would have to use violence in order get the response that I desire.” “Everyday people hurt my feelings and its not fair,” he wrote. His very sense of masculinity was compromised, which meant he had to use violence in order to, as Dr. Kimmel put it, return to “the moment before that sense of vulnerability and dependency was felt.” Most disturbingly, it worked. As Shaw put it in one of his final posts, “Truthfully, I feel so much better after hitting an asian [sic] Woman in the face with a steel rod. It was the greatest achievement of my life.”
Masculinity is merely a construct. What it means to “be a man” is taught to us by our families and religious figures and cultural icons. Masculinity need not be associated with violence or revenge against anyone, let alone women. We can teach others and ourselves that it’s okay to move on when someone breaks our heart, or when a relationship fails. Toxic masculinity hurts and kills women. As we’ve seen from Tyrell Shaw, it also ends the lives of men, who are already at a greater risk of suicide than women. Yet we cannot fight a problem if we refuse to recognize it. Too many men find it comfortable to retreat into the confines of traditional gender norms; it’s practically ingrained in us.
Some, like the so-called Men’s Rights Activists, staunchly oppose giving up this definition of what it means to “be a man.” They would rather espouse violent rhetoric and savage women online. While Tyrell Shaw was busy stalking and assaulting women, Dean Esmay of the men’s rights website A Voice for Men was vigorously promoting the Twitter hashtag #SpankAFeminist and making rape jokes. At best, this rhetoric gets us nowhere. At worst, it harms and terrorizes women.
We need to strike at the root of the problem of male violence. We can only do that if we admit to ourselves what the cause is.